Servant-leadership and characteristics of leaders

Clare D’Netto

This article considers the challenges faced by Christians to adopt the servant-leadership ideal within their professional lives. Clare D’Netto is the Head Teacher of Manor Junior School in Barking, East London.

I have spent many years attending conferences on leadership styles, reading countless books on the topic and taking part in costly self-assessments.  I find the role of a school leader fascinating and the process in identifying the most effective leadership style almost addictive.  Over the years I have completed numerous questionnaires, 360-degree appraisals, self-analyses to reflect on leadership style, whilst simultaneously filling the pockets of many an entrepreneurial leadership guru. Defining and discussing styles of leadership fills bookcases around the world; from natural leaders to rainbow leaders, the list is endless. As a Catholic Head Teacher leading a Catholic school in the London Borough of Havering in East London, my leadership style took inspiration from the Gospel values and I actively strove to lead as Jesus, our model servant-leader:

Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.’
(Luke 21.24-27)

However, a move last year took me away from my faith school to become the Head Teacher of a large community school in Barking.  I began to question the effectiveness of the servant-leader philosophy when leading a non-Christian community.  Would this style of leadership be accepted?  Would it be effective?  As a Christian, would I be expected to maintain this preferred leadership style?  Whilst I offer no final solution, the journey I have taken has inspired me to maintain my daily routines of prayer and reflection within the challenges of leading a school.

A generation ago, Greenleaf (1977) offered a secular version of servant-leadership, deriving from Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East. Since the concept of servant-leadership as the action of Jesus Christ means that many people are likely to view it as a Christian leadership theory, and therefore one that can only be practised by Christians, but Punnachet has more recently affirmed the central drive of the metaphor:

It is noteworthy that the term in Greenleaf’s writing incorporates a hyphen. This is no accident. In fact, Greenleaf’s intention is to emphasise that the leader should be a servant first. The servant and leader aspects cannot be separated. The theory, from this perspective, will be complete only when we combine the characteristics of both the servant and the leader.
(Punnachet: 2009;117)

I believe that servant-leadership, as a leadership theory, can be highly effective in both the religious context as well as the pluralist secular world.  However, its unabashedly spiritual philosophy means that it may not always be accepted by a secular community, however powerful a theory. Leaders today are often chosen through psychological testing to identify key personality traits, they are expected to have certain behaviours and many skills.

But there is a pressure for leaders to be good at everything today, to be what we might call ‘rainbow leaders’.  This is because people who show skill in one area are often promoted into corporate positions where they have to take on other kinds of responsibility.  So, rainbow leaders, are expected to be good at inspiring, coaching, accounting, planning and delegating.  If however, someone has risen through the ranks because she’s great at inspiring her colleagues, but it turns out she is lousy at filling in a balance sheet, it can be a recipe for failure.
(van Vugt & Ahuja; 2010:158)

The model of servant leadership contradicts the traditional model of charismatic leaders who rise to positions of power through unwavering self-belief, through magnetic personalities and stirring rhetoric.  Servant-leadership demands a commitment to the poor and marginalized, the vulnerable of the community; it asks of the leader to put the group before the needs of the leader. It is for this reason that I believe that the model of servant leadership is a powerful model when leading a school community.  Whether that community be one based on our faith or it is a secular community, it is fact that the Head Teacher is a Christian and they have Jesus as a role model in their lives, that the servant-leadership philosophy is so attractive. 

Servant-leadership is a style of leadership that is characterised by humility, empathy and a sense of community; it asks the leader to have a respect for ethics and to be the steward of the group’s resources.  However, Greenleaf’s work in the 1970s was not initially based on the interpretations of the gospel.  Servant-leadership has its origins in ancestral societies, where leadership would initially have evolved purely as a device for promoting the survival of the group (van Vugt and Auja: 2010; 39). Arguing for a ‘Catholic servant-leadership’, Punnachet (2009:122) contends:
Jesus demonstrated a new leadership theory and practised one that totally contradicted traditional leadership practice, which focused on power and control. He used love and kindness instead of power or force. He persuaded others to follow his way, but did not manipulate or control them.

In my experience, as a Catholic Head Teacher, leadership in any school is a mission driven to reduce social inequality.  O’Malley (2007:21) notes: ‘There is always more than money involved.’   The recent austerity policy of central and local government has led to cuts that have hit schools hard and yet many Head Teachers have to be constantly creative to face their role in these challenging circumstances and to ensure that their communities continue to thrive and grow.   

My commandment is this… Love one another just as I love you.
(John 15.12)

It is part of our Christian tradition always to have a commitment to the vulnerable in our society.  Through our words, prayers and actions we are taught always to consider how we treat the neediest members of our community,
The poor you will always have with you and you can help them any time you want.
(Mark 14.7)

Servant-leadership provides us with a theory based on unconditional love, where the leader is prepared to put the needs of the community above their own and to lead by example, carrying out the tasks that others may not wish to do.

Therefore, it can be seen that this theory of leadership is based on a philosophy of service, which has love as its foundation. This philosophy pays attention to self-denial and concentrates on genuine concern for others. Hunter (1998) summarised the servant leadership concept by saying that it is based on ‘agape’ or unconditional love. St. Paul defined ‘agape’ (love) in the letter to the Corinthians (see 1 Cor. 13.47). Winston (2002, cited in Patterson 2003) has explained ‘agape’ love as moral love, which means doing the right thing at the right time and for the right reasons (Patterson 2003, 3). This absolute love will encourage people to serve and fulfil others’ needs.
(Punnnachet: 2009;122)

Adopting the philosophy of servant-leadership in my everyday practice is never easy. O’Malley (op. cit.) describes three types of Christian leaders: priest, prophet and king all of which combine the traditional authoritarian leader with the theory of servant-leadership. He recognises that the apparently simple description of servant-leader will never totally capture an individual’s experience, but the three callings do help us to understand the different routes that Christian school leaders may take and the personal calling behind this.  These categories also help us to identity how servant-leadership can be diluted by our personal calling, experiences, social background.  Furthermore, they help us to understand the different approaches and the different interpretations that leaders make of the key principles and order of priorities that Grace (2002) recognised as a challenge to mission integrity.

This table summarises three Christian vocations (O’Malley; 2007:16-22):

The Leader as Priest (mystic)The Leader as Prophet (idealist)The Leader as King (organiser)Aspect of leadershipLeadership is a spiritual role.
They work on the bigger picture.Concerned with justice.
Focus on those most at risk in the community.Value harmony and reason.
Faithful to order and accountability.CharacteristicsReminds people of a deeper reality at work.
Brings God’s presence to mind through words and actions.
They are mystic and intuitive.Will say what needs to be said.
Consistent and fair.
Able to admit their failures.
Focus on projects through to conclusion.
Vital to Christian leadership.Keen to consult and to co-ordinate decisions.

Use authority as needed.
Recognise that the spiritual has to become real in decision making.Possible negative characteristicsMay miss the energy and enthusiasm behind a colleague’s criticism.
May misinterpret a pupil’s gratitude.
May resist change for selfish motives.Not usually popular with people.
Restless because nothing is ever perfect.
Can tend to let their anger show (but aware for reconciliation)Guards dignity at all times.
May be over reliant on order.
Use of authority, boundaries and sanctions may not be understood by all.

Let us unpick these three categories further, comparing my earlier definition of servant-leadership and how it becomes diluted: 
•    The leader as priest certainly has the empathy to bring God’s presence to mind through their words and actions yet are unable to take on the theory completely as their unintentional selfish motives when faced with change are at odds to the role of servant-leader.
•    The leader as prophet has the drive to work with the most vulnerable in the community, they have the humility to admit their failings, but their restlessness and search for perfection underpins a lack of empathy. 
•    The leader as king has the sense of community and involves those around them, but by guarding their dignity, they lack the humility to be a true servant-leader.
The tension between the ideals of servant-leadership, the teachings of the Church and the realities of life today are laid clear in O’Malley’s three leadership examples.
The moral dilemmas faced by Catholic leaders are clear; Pope John Paul II warned us of these.
Conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil. Rather there is profoundly imprinted upon it a principle of obedience vis-à-vis the objective norm which establishes and conditions the correspondence of its decisions with the commands and prohibitions which are at the basis of human behaviour.
(Pope John Paul II; 1993: 60)

We must do our best to inform our conscience and to understand the divine law as expressed by the magisterium of the Church. To be truly a servant-leader is, in my opinion, the ideal leadership theory for a Catholic Head Teacher. It demands a regular review of mission, an examination of conscience and time to reflect through prayer and be open to the Holy Spirit.  Good leadership, whether within the secular or the faith community, requires truthfulness, vision and values. However, servant-leadership adds an extra leadership challenge as it urges us to be more Christ-like:
The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.
(Matthew 20.28)

What greater leadership role model could we ask for in our schools today?  I will, of course, strive to embed a servant-leadership philosophy in my new setting. Some colleagues have found it difficult to accept this style of leadership  but many are inspired to emulate it.  The community is aware of the changes in the school and the fruits of servant-leadership are starting to grow and be noticed. Ofsted reported, in May 2018, The values of motivation, joy, success, enthusiasm, respect, inclusion and challenge permeate throughout the school.

It is going to be a long journey, one where I will rely on prayer, reflection and inspiration from the Gospel to assist me in leading as close to a true servant-leader as possible.     

•     Greenleaf, R., Servant Leadership, New York: Paulist Press (1977)
•     O’Malley SDB, D., Christian Leadership in Education, Bolton: Don Bosco Publications (2007)
•     Pope John Paul II (1993) Veritatis splendour. (accessed on 2 June 2018)
•     Punnachet, T. K., “Catholic servant-leadership in education: going beyond the secular paradigm”, International Studies in Catholic Education, 1: 2, 117-134 (2009)
•     van Vugt, M., & Ahuja, A., Why some people lead, why others follow, and why it matters, London: Profile Books (2010)